Yes Minister

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Television

Yes Minister /
Yes, Prime Minister

The title card of Yes Minister
Genre Comedy
Camera setup Multi-camera
Running time 30 minutes
Creator(s) Antony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Starring Paul Eddington
Nigel Hawthorne
Derek Fowlds
Opening theme Ronnie Hazlehurst
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original channel BBC Two
Original run 25 February 1980– 28 January 1988
No. of episodes 39

Yes Minister is a satirical British sitcom that was first transmitted by BBC television and radio between 1980 and 1984. It was followed by a sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, which ran from 1986 to 1988. Both series comprise a total of 38 episodes, written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, and all but one last half an hour.

Set in the private office in Whitehall of a British government cabinet minister (and later 10 Downing Street), the series follows the ministerial career of James Hacker MP, played by Paul Eddington, and his various struggles to bring in legislation against the administrative will of the British Civil Service, in particular his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne and his more helpful Principal Private Secretary played by Derek Fowlds. Almost every programme ends with the eponymous line, "Yes, Minister" (or "Yes, Prime Minister").

A critical and popular success, the series was the recipient of a number of awards, including several BAFTAs and in 2004 came sixth in Britain's Best Sitcom. It also gained notoriety as being the favourite television programme of the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.


The dominant running theme is the struggle between ( The Rt Hon.) James "Jim" Hacker, the newly-appointed Minister in the (fictional) Department of Administrative Affairs, and his civil servants and ministerial colleagues. Chief among his officials are Sir Humphrey Appleby, KCB, MVO, MA (Oxon), who is the department's Permanent Secretary, and Bernard Woolley, Hacker's Principal Private Secretary.

The different ideals and self-interested motivations of the characters are frequently contrasted. Whilst Hacker occasionally approaches an issue from a sense of idealism and a desire to be seen to improve things for the better, he ultimately sees his re-election as the only endorsement of his success. In order to achieve this he must appear to the voters as effective, and responsive to the public will. Sir Humphrey, on the other hand, genuinely believes (along with most of the other civil servants who are depicted) that it is the Civil Service who know what is best for the country, which usually translates into being what is best for the Civil Service. Most of his actions are motivated by his wish to maintain the power and influence he enjoys inside a large, bureaucratic organisation, and also to preserve the numerous perks of his position (including automatic honours, a substantial income, a fixed retirement age and a large index-linked pension), and the practical impossibility of a civil servant being made redundant or sacked for incompetence. It is the politicians who potentially lose their jobs because of civil service ineptitude, and this is another source of tension between Hacker and Appleby.

Hacker, then, sees his task as the initiation of reforms and economies in the department, a reduction of the level of bureaucracy and staff numbers in the Civil Service, and the government of the country according to his party's policies. To do so — or to at least look as if he has — would be a vote-winner. Conversely, Sir Humphrey sees his role as ensuring that politics is kept out of government as much as possible, and that the status quo is upheld as a matter of principle. He will block any move that seeks either to prevent the further expansion of the civil service or to reduce the complexity of its bureaucracy.

Much of the show's humour thus derives from the antagonism between Cabinet ministers (who believe they are in charge) and the members of the British Civil Service who really run the country. A typical episode centres on Jim Hacker's suggesting and pursuing a reform, and Sir Humphrey's ingenious blocking of all Hacker's lines of approach. More often than not Sir Humphrey prevents him from achieving his goal, while mollifying Hacker with some positive publicity, or at least a means to cover up his failure. However, Hacker occasionally gets his way — as in " The Greasy Pole" (one of the few times when, of the two of them, Sir Humphrey is clearly the one with right on his side).

Initially Woolley naively sees his job as the disinterested implementation of the Minister's policies, but he gradually finds that this conflicts with his institutional duty to the department and sometimes, since Sir Humphrey is responsible for formally assessing Woolley's performance, his own potential career development.

The first series featured Frank Weisel, Hacker's political advisor, played by Neil Fitzwiliam. While his name is pronounced W-"eye"-sel, Sir Humphrey and Bernard persistently call him "Mr Weasel". Weisel does not appear after the first series, following his convenient acceptance of a position on a quango (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation) tasked with investigating the appointment of other quangos. After the third series, following Sir Humphrey's promotion to Cabinet Secretary, Hacker becomes Prime Minister and requests that Bernard Woolley continue as his Principal Private Secretary. The first series of Yes, Prime Minister introduced Dorothy Wainwright (played by Deborah Norton) as a highly able Special Political Advisor to the Prime Minister. Her insight into many civil service tricks ensures a lasting mutual distrust between her and Sir Humphrey.

Hacker's home life is shown occasionally throughout the series. His wife, Annie ( Diana Hoddinott), is clearly frustrated by the disruptions caused by her husband's political career and is at times somewhat sarcastic about her husband's politics. Meanwhile, his sociology student daughter, Lucy ( Gerry Cowper), becomes an environmental activist in one episode (her only on-screen appearance, despite several other mentions), campaigning against one of her father's department's policies.

Sir Humphrey's personal characteristics include his complicated sentences, his cynical views on government, and his superciliousness. Hacker's attributes include occasional indecisiveness, and a tendency to launch into ludicrous Churchillian speeches. Bernard is apt to linguistic pedantry. Sir Humphrey often discusses matters with other Permanent Secretaries, who appear similarly sardonic and jaded, and the Cabinet Secretary (whom he will eventually succeed in Yes, Prime Minister), Sir Arnold Robinson — played by John Nettleton — an archetype of cynicism, haughtiness and conspiratorial expertise. This fairly counter-intuitive view of government administration is not only Sir Humphrey's: it is completely taken for granted by the civil service.

The Yes, Prime Minister episode " The Bishop's Gambit" parodied liberal theology and politics in the Anglican church. Hacker thought that the church is a Christian institution, but Sir Humphrey gleefully informed him that most of the bishops do not believe in God, and that a theologian's job is partly to explain why an agnostic or atheist can be a church leader.

Almost all the episodes end with one of the characters (usually Sir Humphrey) saying "Yes, Minister" or "Yes, Prime Minister". Each episode of the former series was more or less self-contained, but Yes, Prime Minister had a loose story arc.


The writers placed Hacker at the centre of the political spectrum, and were careful to identify his party headquarters as "Central House" (a combination of Conservative Central Office and Labour's Transport House). The terms ' Labour' and ' Conservative' are thoroughly avoided throughout the series, favouring terms such as "the party" and "the opposition". The series clearly intended to satirise politics and government in general, rather than any specific party. The one exception to this rule occurs very briefly in " The National Education Service", when Sir Humphrey explains to Bernard how the policy of comprehensive education is retained through successive governments, using different arguments according to which party is in power.

Despite this, the overall thrust of the early episodes was in a libertarian direction: casting government reduction in a more favourable light than government expansion. The episode " Jobs for the Boys", for example, rejected corporatism. Jay was personally sympathetic to the economically liberal elements of Thatcherism, and served as a part-time speech writer to Nigel Lawson. Lynn was, even initially, less sympathetic to Thatcher and as the decade progressed Thatcher's personality came to eclipse the policy agenda. This partnership produced episodes such as " Man Overboard", which satirised the Westland affair.

In Trollopian style, certain minor characters in the series were apparently drawn from identifiable real-world originals. The acerbic nationalised industry chairman, Sir Wally McFarland, was an affectionate caricature of Sir Monty Finniston (of British Steel); the Prime Minister's special advisor in Yes Minister, Sir Mark Spencer, was a reference to Derek Rayner who joined the first Thatcher Government from the chain store group Marks & Spencer; and the journalists John Pilgrim and Alex Andrews were evident references to John Pilger and Andrew Alexander. Billy Fraser, a tough uncompromising Scottish trade unionist, was based on Jamie Morris, who had led the strike at Westminster Hospital during the Winter of Discontent, and Ben Stanley was a reference to the controversial former leader of the GLC, Ken Livingstone. By contrast, Hacker's Prime Ministerial special advisor, Dorothy Wainwright, predated the arrival of Sarah Hogg (who bore her some resemblance) as John Major's advisor some years later.

The pilot was produced in 1979 but not transmitted until 1980 in fear that it could influence the results of the 1979 UK General Election.


In a programme screened by the BBC in early 2004, paying tribute to the series, it was revealed that Jay and Lynn had drawn on information provided by two insiders from the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, namely Marcia Williams and Bernard Donoughue. The name of Hacker's ministry was partly derived from the Department for Economic Affairs, which had existed in the 1960s, created and abolished by Wilson. The fundamental plot of a minister being frustrated by the Civil Service was inspired by the published diaries of Richard Crossman after 1964, which are dominated by Crossman's constant struggle with Dame Evelyn Sharp, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The title was probably suggested by Crossman's entry for October 22, 1964, less than a week after he had been appointed:

"Already I realise the tremendous effort it requires not to be taken over by the Civil Service. My Minister's room is like a padded cell, and in certain ways I am like a person who is suddenly certified a lunatic and put safely into this great, vast room, cut off from real life and surrounded by male and female trained nurses and attendants. When I am in a good mood they occasionally allow an ordinary human being to come and visit me; but they make sure that I behave right, and that the other person behaves right; and they know how to handle me. Of course, they don't behave quite like nurses because the Civil Service is profoundly deferential — 'Yes, Minister! No, Minister! If you wish it, Minister!'"

Some of the material for the episodes is clearly derived from or based on part of Anthony Sampson's book Anatomy of Britain (Hodder and Stoughton, 1962). The episode entitled " The Moral Dimension", in which Hacker and his staff engage in the scheme of secretly consuming alcohol on a trade mission to the fictional Islamic state of Qumran, was revealed to have been based on a real incident that took place in Pakistan. The reference in " A Diplomatic Incident" (Yes, Prime Minister) to opportunities for diplomacy at a "working funeral" (in light of his predecessor's death) may have been inspired by the discussions between Harold Wilson and Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith at the funeral of Winston Churchill, which came at a time when each was refusing to travel to see the other.


A total of thirty-eight episodes were made: all are of 30 minutes' duration except one. As was standard BBC practice for situation comedies at the time, they were videotaped in front of a studio audience with film inserts of any location sequences. Some shots of Hacker travelling in his car were achieved by means of chroma key. Each instalment usually comprised around six scenes.

Yes Minister ran for three series, each of seven episodes, between 1980 and 1982. These were followed by two Christmas specials: one 10-minute sketch as part of an anthology presented by Frank Muir, and then the hour-long " Party Games", in 1984. The latter's events led to Hacker's elevation to Prime Minister, dovetailing into the sequel, Yes, Prime Minister. This ran for two series, each of eight episodes, from 1986 to 1988.

In a Radio Times interview to promote the second series of Yes, Prime Minister, the producer, Sydney Lotterby, stated that he always tried to give Eddington and Hawthorne extra time to rehearse as their scenes invariably featured lengthy dialogue exchanges.

Other characters

The series featured a cast of recurring characters. Frank Weisel, played by Neil Fitzwiliam, was Hacker's political advisor in the first series. It wasn't until Yes, Prime Minister that another such character appeared regularly: Dorothy Wainwright, special advisor to the Prime Minister, who was played by Deborah Norton. Hacker also had a Press Secretary, Bill Pritchard, played by Antony Carrick. Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey's civil service colleagues were regularly featured. They included Sir Arnold Robinson (played by John Nettleton), Cabinet Secretary in Yes Minister and later President of the Campaign for Freedom of Information; Sir Frederick Stewart (played by John Savident), Permanent Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who is known as "Jumbo" to his friends; and Sir Frank Gordon (played by Peter Cellier), Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, who appeared in both series. Sir Humphrey also had an old acquaintance: Sir Desmond Glazebrook (played by Richard Vernon), who was Board member, then Chairman, of Bartlett's Bank. He became Governor of the Bank of England in the Yes, Prime Minister episode " A Conflict of Interest".

Hacker's chaffeur, George ( Arthur Cox), appeared in five episodes. He is a character who is always more in touch with current events than the Minister. This often irritates Hacker, who when asking George where he got the information, is usually told that it is common knowledge among the Whitehall drivers.

Hacker's family comprised his wife, Annie (played by Diana Hoddinott), who appeared in many episodes, and his daughter, Lucy (played by Gerry Cowper), who only featured on-screen in one: " The Right to Know".

Well known broadcasters who played themselves included Robert McKenzie, Ludovic Kennedy and Sue Lawley. The late Robert Dougall regularly played a newsreader — his own real life profession.

Opening titles and music

The opening titles were drawn by artist Gerald Scarfe, who provided distinctive caricatures of Eddington, Hawthorne and Fowlds in their respective roles. He animated them as 'self-drawing' by positioning the camera above his paper, adding parts of lines, and then photographing two frames at a time. The sequence ended with the title of the episode superimposed on a blank 'government memo'. Scarfe created a second set of graphics for Yes, Prime Minister, featuring different artwork for each episode title card. Derek Fowlds wanted to buy an original drawing but was unable to afford it.

The theme music was composed by Ronnie Hazlehurst and is largely based on the Westminster Quarters: the chimes of Big Ben. When asked in an interview about its Westminster influence, Hazlehurst replied, "That's all it is. It's the easiest thing I've ever done."

Scarfe's and Hazlehurst's work was not used for the first episode, " Open Government". The final version of the titles and music had yet to be agreed, and both differ substantially from those used for subsequent instalments. The opening and closing title caption cards feature drawings of most of the cast, but are less exaggerated than those of Scarfe, while the uncredited music is a more up-tempo piece for brass band. The Scarfe and Hazelhurst credits were used for some repeat broadcasts of the first episode, but the original pilot credits were retained for the DVD release.

The series' performance credits typically did not feature the names of characters — only those of the actors who appeared in the particular episode.

Critical reception

Yes Minister won the BAFTA award for Best Comedy Series for 1980, 1981 and 1982, and the "Party Games" special was nominated in the Best Light Entertainment Programme category for 1984. Yes, Prime Minister was shortlisted for Best Comedy Series for both 1986 and 1987.

Nigel Hawthorne's portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby won the BAFTA Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance four times: in the awards for 1981, 1982, 1986 and 1987. Eddington was also nominated on all four occasions.

Yes Minister came sixth in a 2004 BBC poll to find ' Britain's Best Sitcom'. In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted by industry professionals, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were jointly placed ninth.

The series have been cited by political scientists for their accurate and sophisticated portrayal of the relationships between civil servants and politicians. The shows were very popular in government circles, and they were the favourite programme of then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, during her premiership, and of John Major's, the resident cat of 10 Downing Street was called Humphrey after Hawthorne's character.

With the help of Bernard Ingham, Thatcher wrote a four-minute sketch which she performed with the show's two principal actors (with their reluctant acquiescence). The sketch was performed on 20 January 1984 at a ceremony where the writers were presented with an award from Mary Whitehouse's NVLA. Accepting the award, Lynn thanked Thatcher "for taking her rightful place in the field of situation comedy." Everyone, except the Prime Minister, laughed.

When Paul Eddington visited Australia during the 1980s, he was treated as a visiting British PM by the then Australian leader, Bob Hawke, who was obviously a great fan of the show. At a rally, Hawke said "You don't want to be listening to me; you want to be listening to the real Prime Minister," forcing Eddington to improvise.

In an interview to promote the first series of Yes, Prime Minister, Derek Fowlds offered this reason for the series' popularity with both politicians and Whitehall officials:

"Both political sides believe that it satirises their opponents, and civil servants love it because it depicts them as being more powerful than either. And of course, they love it because it's all so authentic."



The show has been remade several times. The first was the Canadian remake in 1987 Not My Department, which only lasted one season. Rosenbaddarna (from 1990) was the Swedish unofficial remake. The title of the Portuguese remake, Sim, Sr. Ministro (from 1996), could cause confusion when shown alongside the British version since it was also the direct translation of the original's title. Ji, Mantriji (2001) was the official remake in Hindi (with the BBC's permission) by Star Plus, Rupert Murdoch's Indian satellite TV channel.


There have been several comedies and dramas with similar themes. House of Cards was a mini-series first broadcast in 1990, about the Machiavellian struggle of Chief Whip Francis Urquhart to become Prime Minister. His story was later continued in To Play the King in 1993 and The Final Cut in 1995.

A computer game version of Yes Minister was released in 1987 for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum. The premise was to survive one week in office as Jim Hacker.

In 2005, BBC Four launched The Thick of It. Director Armando Iannucci described it as "Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders", and The Telegraph called it "a Yes, Minister for the New Labour years."


Sixteen episodes of Yes Minister were adapted and re-recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 4, with the principal cast reprising their roles. They were broadcast across two seasons, each with eight episodes. The first series aired 18 October to 7 December 1983, with the second originally transmitted 8 October to 27 November 1984. The complete set was released on cassette in February 2000, and on compact disc in October 2002.

In 1997, Derek Fowlds reprised the role of Bernard Woolley to read Antony Jay's How To Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen's Guide To Fighting Officialdom. It was broadcast in three daily parts by Radio 4 from 29 September to 1 October 1997 and released by BBC Audiobooks on cassette in October 1997.


Video and DVD releases

The BBC issued some episodes of Yes Minister, and all of Yes Prime Minister on VHS. They were rereleased and repackaged at various points.

The complete collection was released by BBC Warner on Region 1 DVD in October 2003. Warner appears to have added RCE to the individual release of the second series of Yes Minister, but there are no similar reported problems on playing the complete collection.

The BBC, through 2 Entertain Video, have issued several Region 2 DVDs:

  • Yes Minister: Series One (BBCDVD1047), released 1 October 2001
  • Yes Minister: Series Two (BBCDVD1120), released 30 September 2002
  • Yes Minister: Series Three & "Party Games" (BBCDVD1188), released 29 September 2003
  • The Complete Yes Minister (BBCDVD1462), released 15 November 2004
  • Yes, Prime Minister: Series One (BBCDVD1365), released 4 October 2004
  • Yes, Prime Minister: Series Two (BBCDVD1729), released 9 May 2005
  • The Complete Yes Minister & Yes, Prime Minister, released 16 October 2006


Several books have been published surrounding the series. The scripts were edited and transformed into prose, and published by BBC Books in the form of diaries. Scenes that did not involve Hacker took the form of private memos between civil servants, or 'interviews' and written correspondence from other characters.

The three series of Yes Minister were published as paperbacks in 1981, 1982 and 1983 respectively before being combined into a revised hardback omnibus edition, The Complete Yes Minister: The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, in 1984.

Yes, Prime Minister: The Diaries of the Right Hon. James Hacker were published as two volumes in 1986 and 1987 respectively, before also receiving an omnibus edition in 1988.

Both series were published as omnibus paperback editions in 1989:

  • The Complete Yes Minister ISBN 0563206659
  • The Complete Yes, Prime Minister ISBN 0563207736

Antony Jay's How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen's Guide to Fighting Officialdom was published in April 1997. It was illustrated by Gerald Scarfe and Shaun Williams. It was read by Derek Fowlds on Radio 4 later that year.

Retrieved from ""